It’s hard to ignore the striking oddity when a Caucasian plays the lead role in a film set in Asia or about Asians. This was the controversial topic of conversation at a Lunch Plenary titled #OscarSoWhite and Whitewashing in Hollywood.
Hosted by KABC News Anchor David Ono and featuring three speakers- Janet Yang (Hollywood producer), William Yu (Digital Strategist, #StarringJohnCho), and Tamlyn Tomita (Actress), the discussion started with Asian Americans in Hollywood pushing for a change. Earlier this year, 25 Asian American members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sent a letter to the organization protesting the ‘tasteless and offensive skits’ about Asians that were televised on the 88th Academy Awards.
Janet Yang, who produced films like The Joy Luck Club and People vs. Larry Flynt, was one of those who signed that letter to the Academy. She said she sent another to the Academy and wrote editorials as well addressing the lack of diversity in Hollywood. But Yang also offered a perspective few people in the audience had previously considered. She noted that ‘Jewish guys, or rebels’ started Hollywood, and no one saw the international markets coming, especially China. She added that she currently works for a company that has large Chinese backings. “Everyone in China is looking for a way to understand Americans better,” said Yang. “Americans are doing the same, to understand China better. Asian Americans are the bridge.”
Still, Yang said that it was going to be awkward and difficult to bring the two cultures together because it’s never happened before. Currently, she noted that Asians living in Asia aren’t as offended as Asian Americans are about casting white actors for Asian roles. “Japanese don’t really understand why this Asian thing is an issue,” she said. “Because to Japan, American is black and white.”
Yang also addressed the controversial casting of Matt Damon in an upcoming film about medieval China. “China never felt the need to question the casting of a Hollywood star for The Great Wall,” she said. Yang noted that Hollywood is representing Chinese culture in a way that is very palatable to the world, and Asians aren’t offended by that approach. She added that the acquisition of Hollywood by Chinese companies could lead to more diversity in the future.
Looking ahead at what a more ‘Asian’ Hollywood could look like, William Yu started a social movement called #StarringJohnCho. He replaced leading actors in movie posters with images of Korean-American actor John Cho, and his new creatives became a national sensation. When asked why John Cho, Yu replied “He’s one of the most recognizable Asian actors today.” Yu continued that Cho is unique because he brings dimensions and depths to his roles and is financially successful, proving to drive ticket sales, which is important to Hollywood heavyweights.
Actress Tamlyn Tomita applauded Yu’s efforts, saying it was “a reaction that was smart, witty and caused dialogue.” She hoped to see some tangible results soon and urged the journalists in attendance to help spread the message about the need to have more Asian representation in Hollywood. “You have the power to continue the conversation a little more loudly,” she said. “We’re crying out for opportunity.. to go into the room and audition.”